Swimming the Tiber 6: Priests of the New Covenant

The Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of believers is based on several passages of the New Testament. I will attempt to deal directly with those, but my goal is not to convince you that Catholics disagree with this in principle–rather, Catholics embody the priesthood of believers better than any other Christian group.

The first proof of the priesthood of believers is the tearing of the veil at the death of Christ. This is recorded in all three synoptic Gospels:

And Jesus, again having screamed with a great sound, sent forth the breath. And behold! the veil of the temple was split from on high until below into two and the earth was shaken1 and the stones were split.

– Matthew 27:50-51 (my translation)

And Jesus, having sent forth a great sound, breathed out. And the veil of the temple was split into two from on high until below.

– Mark 15:37-38 (my translation)

And it was already about the sixth hour and darkness came about upon the whole earth until the ninth hour, with the sun having been eclipsed, and the veil of the temple was split in the middle. And having sounded with a great sound, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I set aside my breath.” And having said this, he breathed out.2

– Luke 23:44-46 (my translation)

The second proof, and the most obvious, is from the first epistle of St. Peter:

And you [are] a select race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people unto preservation, in order that you may proclaim the goodnesses of the [one] having called you out of darkness into his marvelous light;

– I Peter 2:9 (my translation)

The remainder of the doctrine comes from the Book of Hebrews, which I will not quote (most of the latter half of the book deals with this question, in part), but consider especially Hebrews 10:19-25; 13:15-19. There is also, wrapped up in this doctrine, the issue of conflating the priesthood of the Catholic Church with the Levitical priesthood, which is obsolete (see Hebrews 7:11-25; 8:1-7; 9:11-15; 12:18-24).

Let me start by saying this: There is absolutely no mediator in our salvation but Christ, and we are permitted direct access to the very presence of God, without the hindrance of the temple veil. Catholics have a tendency to use the term “mediator” regarding one or more of the saints; if this confuses you, look forward to my post on the intercession of the saints at a later date. For now, understand that it does not conflict with this point. Christ is our sole mediator, and it is by Christ alone that we are cleansed of our sins. No Catholic doctrine opposes these truths from the letter to the Hebrews.

How, then, has it become so confused? Why do Catholics have priests? Well, the short answer is that, whether or not we have unfettered access to him, God is still holy; it still behooves us to have as our pastors men who are held to a higher standard, who are devoted to serving him. The apostolic priesthood of the Catholic Church is less about mediation than it is about serving the purpose to which the apostles were called (see especially Matthew 16:19; 18:15-20; John 20:21-23; 21:15-17), in which they take on the mantle of Christ as his servants, to forgive sins, cast out demons, and bring the people to repentance.

That is to say, the priests of the Catholic Church are the vicars of Christ, meaning that they operate bodily in his stead, since he is with the Father in heaven. They only have authority because he grants it; they can only act as priests because he wills it.

But if they are the priests, how are we all priests? What of the verse from the first letter of Peter? Well, let me address two points there: First, that verse is primarily delineating the necessity of evangelization by all the faithful. We are all teachers and preachers of Christ, and it is our duty to share in the Great Commission (see Matthew 28:18-20). Second, the priesthood of believers, and the access we have been granted since the tearing of the veil, is most wonderfully fulfilled through the Eucharist.

I will deal with all of the ins and outs of the Eucharist in a later post (and there are a great many things to discuss), but here’s the short-short version: Where Protestants have Communion (eating bread and drinking wine/grape juice in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice),3 Catholics have the Eucharist (partaking of the very Body and Blood of Christ). The Eucharist is not a new sacrifice (see Hebrews 9:24-10:18), but the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross made present. Catholics believe that it is not merely bread and wine, reminding us of Christ’s sacrifice, but Christ’s very own Body and Blood, the Real Presence.

So to partake of the Eucharist is to encounter God more personally, more closely, more fully than any Levitical priest ever could, even the high priest. It is truly the priesthood of the believer which allows this unfettered access to God’s own flesh. Christ offered himself as sacrifice (see Hebrews 7:27; 9:14; 10:10; 13:12), and as with such holy sacrifices, the priest consumes the flesh of the sacrifice (see Leviticus 6:26; Deuteronomy 18:1; cf. Genesis 14:18; John 6:47-58). So we, in partaking of the one sacrifice of Christ through the Eucharist, are priests ourselves, entering into the holy of holies.

In this way, Catholics absolutely believe in the priesthood of believers and, I think, fulfill it more perfectly than any Protestant denomination can.

If you are greatly troubled by all this talk of the Eucharist, and you find it difficult to accept, don’t worry; you’re in good company. As I said, I will work to address what are probably many concerns about these doctrines in upcoming posts; if you stick with me, we’ll get there.

But we have a few more topics we need to cover first. Up next is the necessity of the visible Church, that is, why can’t “the Church” just be the “mystical body of Christ through the Holy Spirit”? Why must it be this thing in the world, encumbered by so much bureaucracy and weighed down by the wickedness of the men that fill it? Let’s find out!

1 There is a great play on words here; ἐσείσθη, meaning “it was shaken,” sounds very similar to ἐσχίσθη, meaning “it was split.” Not only the veil, but the whole world, was torn asunder in this moment.
2 In all three of these verses, there is a play on words with πνεῦμα. The word literally means “breath” or “wind,” but over time, came to mean “spirit.” So in each place, as Christ dies, he sends out his breath, or breathes his last (physical death), but also sends out his spirit, or gives his spirit to the Father (both a poetical term for death and a literal passage of the spirit of Christ out of his Body–cf. I Peter 3:19-20 and Ephesians 4:9).
3 It should be noted that not all Protestants treat Communion this way. Lutherans have communion in “sacramental union,” meaning that Christ is bodily present in the elements, but the elements themselves do not change and the body is not present in a “local” (three-dimensional) sense. For Calvinists/Reformed Christians, “sacramental union” means that Christ is spiritually present in the elements, but again, the elements do not change. The Lutheran stance is mostly the same as consubstantiation, which some Anglicans (and others) hold, but consubstantiation is “differentiated” in that Christ’s body is manifested in three dimensions, but again, does not replace the original elements. If you’re confused by that, don’t worry; it’s kind of confusing. Zwingli’s symbolic “in remembrance” interpretation is most common among evangelical Christians, such as Baptists and non-denominational Christians.

Swimming the Tiber 5: The Infallible Man

For all of us stumble with respect to many [things]. If someone does not stumble in word, this perfect man [is] powerful to bridle the whole body also.

– James 3:2 (my translation)

This verse long stood as my singular objection to the infallibility of the papacy. No man could be infallible, said I, or else he would be sinless, and if history has taught us anything, it’s that the popes were mere men–many of them, perhaps, good men, but none of them sinless.

But my understanding of the infallibility of the papacy was limited to that phrase alone: “the infallibility of the papacy.” It was sufficient for me to destroy that argument, because there was no argument. Ignorance makes the best straw men. When I finally understood what the Catholic Church genuinely teaches on papal infallibility, I found that my responses targeted a foe that never really existed.

Let’s examine the reality.

There are two passages in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deal with papal infallibility. (Why accept hearsay when we can get information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak?) The first is paragraphs 888-892:

Bishops, with priests as co-workers, have as their first task “to preach the Gospel of God to all men,” in keeping with the Lord’s command.1 They are “heralds of faith, who draw new disciples to Christ; they are authentic teachers” of the apostolic faith “endowed with the authority of Christ.”2

In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.”3

The mission of the Magisterium is linked to the definitive nature of the covenant established by God with his people in Christ. It is this Magisterium’s task to preserve God’s people from deviations and defections and to guarantee them the objective possibility of professing the true faith without error. Thus, the pastoral duty of the Magisterium is aimed at seeing to it that the People of God abides in the truth that liberates. To fulfill this service, Christ endowed the Church’s shepherds with the charism of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. The exercise of this charism takes several forms:

“The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals. . . . The infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium,” above all in an Ecumenical Council.4 When the Church through its supreme Magisterium proposes a doctrine “for belief as being divinely revealed,”5 and as the teaching of Christ, the definitions “must be adhered to with the obedience of faith.”6 This infallibility extends as far as the deposit of divine Revelation itself.7

Divine assistance is also given to the successors of the apostles, teaching in communion with the successor of Peter, and, in a particular way, to the bishop of Rome, pastor of the whole Church, when, without arriving at an infallible definition and without pronouncing in a “definitive manner,” they propose in the exercise of the ordinary Magisterium a teaching that leads to better understanding of Revelation in matters of faith and morals. To this ordinary teaching the faithful “are to adhere to it with religious assent”8 which, though distinct from the assent of faith, is nonetheless an extension of it.

1 Presbyterorum Ordinis (Of the Order of Priests), paragraph 4; cf. Mark 16:15
2 Lumen Gentium (The Light of Nations), paragraph 25
3 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 12; cf. Dei Verbum (The Word of God), paragraph 10
4 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25; cf. Vatican Council I: recorded in Denzinger-Schönmetzer, Enchiridion Symbolorum, paragraph 3074Original Latin
In English:
That the Roman pontiff, when he speaks from the chair [of Peter], that is, when (engaged in the service of a shepherd and teacher of all Christians) he defines, on behalf of his own highest Apostolic authority, a doctrine about faith or morals [which] ought to be held by the universal Church, through the divine assistance promised to himself in blessed Peter, is strong with infallibility, where the divine Redeemer wishes that his Church be instructed in a doctrine [which] ought to be defined about faith or morals; therefore, that definitions of this sort of the Roman pontiff, out of himself, but not out of the consensus of the Church, are unalterable.

5 Dei Verbum, paragraph 10, section 2
6 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25, section 2
7 Cf. Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25
8 Lumen Gentium, paragraph 25

The second passage (paragraph 2035) reinforces that infallibility is accessible to the Church via the Magisterium, which is charged with keeping the doctrines of faith and morals intact.

The first thing we learn from a careful reading here is that the infallibility of the Pope is entirely dependent on the infallibility of the Church. Without an infallible Church, we cannot have an infallible Pope.

“But wait!” you exclaim, “The Church isn’t infallible! What about the Inquisition and the Crusades and the Borgia popes and the Avignon popes and Galileo and that stuff I read in a Dan Brown novel and…” Well, first of all, I’m going to address (some) scandals of the Church in later posts. For now, consider this: the Church did not commit heinous acts, only her members did. The Church, for example, has never taught that killing a bunch of Eastern Orthodox Christians in Constantinople was a good way to stick it to the Muslims, even if that’s how the Fourth Crusade played out. The Church has never taught, as a matter of faith and morals, that torture to extract a confession is worth anything at all (but rather the contrary), even if the politics-based Spanish Inquisition did that.

In short, remember what I translated from Matthew last time about how the gates of Hell could never overcome the Church? This is what that means. The Church has never fallen under the sway of the devil or his minions. The Church has never taught, in faith and morals, anything contrary to the will of God. There have been scandals. There have been (very) bad popes. But the Assembly (ἐκκλησία) is an assembly of sinners; is it really a surprise that the people in the Church have been sinning since before it began? Of course not.

But if we hold to Scripture, we know that the Church has never been overthrown. And so the Church shares in the infallibility of Christ, given to her by Christ, so that she can lead people to Him. This is her sole purpose; if she could fail in it, then the whole faith would break down.

Her chief priest, then, shepherd of the faithful (cf. John 21), is endowed with some small measure of this same infallibility. But we see in the quotation above that there are restrictions on this capacity. First, a statement can only be infallible when made “from the chair” of Peter. This means that only official statements promulgated by the Holy See of Rome can meet this criterion. Personal interviews, off-the-cuff statements, private conversations–none can meet this criterion. Already the counter-argument of James 3:2 is fracturing; the Pope is not bridling his tongue infallibly, but only when he acts in his capacity as God’s representative (that is, in his apostolic authority, passed on to him by the Twelve and by Peter in particular) is he capable of being infallible.

But that is not the only restriction. There is also this: the statement must be on an issue of faith or morals. Not all official papal documents meet this criterion. Most, in fact, are described as “pastoral” documents. Pastoral documents are designed to guide the faithful, but are not infallible. They should be treated with respect (since they were issued by the Pope, after all, in his capacity as earthly head of the Church), but finding an error in one (or perceiving an error in one) does not mean that papal infallibility is disproved–because those documents are not intended to be infallible.

There is another restriction, too: in addition to being ex cathedra (from the chair) and on an issue of faith or morals, the doctrine must apply to the entire Church–to all the faithful equally. Many papal statements are not so broad.

But even with these restrictions, surely Popes are putting out all kinds of infallible information, right? They write a lot of letters and stuff. I bet it would be really easy to come up with a list of errors in infallible documents.

Except that they haven’t. Since the formal recognition of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870 (at the first Vatican Council), an infallible doctrine has only been officially declared once (in 1950). It has been applied to other documents retroactively (the most notable being in 1854), and others still which continue in traditions of infallible teaching throughout Church history (e.g., that the priesthood is restricted to men only). Not even every Pope declares an infallible doctrine; there are not, surprisingly enough, that many new things in the Catholic Church.

So what am I saying? That we should accept Papal Infallibility because it isn’t used very often? That’s not a particularly compelling argument, I admit. But papal infallibility follows from the infallibility of the Church, which is established by Christ’s own words. And in spite of all the scandals and all the bad popes and all the anti-popes from all the eras of history, God has seen to it that not one has ever attempted to declare as an infallible doctrine some error.

Well, I shouldn’t say “has never attempted,” but rather, “has never succeeded” in declaring such. Pope Sixtus V is widely credited as a proof of papal infallibility, because he had produced an erroneous translation of the Bible, but before promulgating it as the official translation of the Church, he died of natural causes. The Church very quickly retracted all copies and reissued a correct translation. There have been 266 popes; 264 of them have died. Given human nature, how many more do you think were timely deaths? The gates of Hell shall indeed never overcome the Church.

With all this talk of the papacy, no doubt you’ve started asking, “What about I Peter 2:9 and the whole Book of Hebrews? Don’t you understand that priesthood is bad?” Tune in next time for a discussion of the priesthood of believers in relation to the priesthood of the Church.

Swimming the Tiber 4: Papists and Popery

I swear the first time I heard someone say “popery,” I thought they said “potpourri.” That was a confusing conversation, let me tell you.

I have discussed at some small length the authority of the Church and of Tradition, both in determining the canon of Scripture and in their influence on the faith, handed down to us by the apostles. But there yet remains one great white whale of Catholic and Protestant disagreement–indeed, the very source of the latter name: the Papacy.

The Scriptural authority of the Papacy frequently depends on an oft-disputed passage of the Gospel of Matthew. This passage is so disputed that Zondervan’s NASB goes out of its way to provide a suggestion that Peter ought to be divorced from the foundation of the Church, in a place where that information would otherwise be irrelevant. Here’s the passage, first in the original Greek (or as close as we can get) for Matthew, chapter 16, verses 13 through 20:

Ἐλθὼν δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἰς τὰ μέρη Καισαρείας τῆς Φιλίππου ἠρώτα τοὺς μαθητὰς αὐτοῦ λέγων, Τίνα λέγουσιν οἱ ἄνθρωποι εἶναι τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Οἱ μὲν Ἰωάννην τὸν βαπτιστήν, ἄλλοι δὲ Ἠλίαν, ἕτεροι δὲ Ἰερεμίαν ἢ ἕνα τῶν προφητῶν. λέγει αὐτοῖς, Ὑμεῖς δὲ τίνα με λέγετε εἶναι; ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ Σίμων Πέτρος εἶπεν, Σὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστὸς ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ζῶντος. ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Μακάριος εἶ, Σίμων Βαριωνᾶ, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα οὐκ ἀπεκάλυψέν σοι ἀλλ’ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾄδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. δώσω σοι τὰς κλεῖδας τῆς βασιλείας τῶν οὐρανῶν, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ὃ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. τότε διεστείλατο τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἵνα μηδενὶ εἴπωσιν ὅτι αὐτός ἐστιν ὁ Χριστός.

Now my English translation (interesting footnotes not relevant to the issue at hand are linked):

But on the other hand, Jesus, coming into the portions of Caesarea, the [Caesarea] of Philippos, was asking his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that the son of man1 is?” And they said, “On the one hand, the [ones] [say] John the Baptist, but on the other hand, others [say] Elijah, but different [ones] [say] Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [He] says to them, “But you, who do you say that I am?” And then Simon Peter, having answered, said, “Thou2 are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” And then Jesus, having answered, said to him, “Thou are blessed, Simon Bar-Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to thee, but my father who [is] in the skies. And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter, and upon this stone I will build3 my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.4 I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of the skies, and whatever [thou] fetter [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been fettered in the skies, and whatever [thou] unbind [on a particular occasion] upon the earth will have been unbound in the skies.” Then [he] gave express orders to the disciples, in order that no one might say that he was the Christ.

Obviously, verse 18 is the crux of it: “And I, on the other hand, say to thee that thou are Peter,” etc., etc., etc. But there are some important things to note here.

The first is word choice. The NASB and every Protestant Bible scholar on the planet will tell you that God named Peter Πέτρος, but called the foundation of the church πέτρα, precisely because they were different words that meant different things. I’ve heard that argument plenty of times. Made it myself once or twice, ignorant as I was. So when I was studying this, I finally looked it up in the preeminent Liddell & Scott lexicon. And lo and behold! The dictionary says that the two words are distinguished from each other. That settles it, right?

Well, let’s look closer, just to be safe. Let’s see, πέτρος, a stone, an individuated stone. A single stone. A masculine noun, too. Neat. Okay, πέτρα, that’s supposed to mean a really big rock, right, some kind of boulder or foundation, like Peter’s declaration of faith, right?


Looks like πέτρα means “rock.” As in the material. “Stone” as a material. Or maybe the geography (the “rock” of cliffs, for example). It can also mean “rocks” (individuated!), but it is distinguished from πέτρος because the latter almost always means “a stone,” whereas πέτρα means “rock” or “stone,” in general. But Xenophon, in multiple works, uses πέτρα to mean “stone” and “stones” interchangeably. All the time. To add to the difficulty, so does Scripture in Matthew 27:51; Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8; and Revelation 6:15-16. And looking back, it looks like πέτρος has even been used to mean a boulder… so it’s not always tiny.

So it’s not as clear-cut as “Peter’s name means a pebble and the rock is a huge slab of faith!” Rather, it’s not that at all. Consider Jesus’ style: he has been playing on words since his opening question in this passage; indeed, throughout his ministry, he plays on words (cf. Matthew 23:24, comparing Aramaic galma (gnat) and gamla (camel); John 3; 12:32; 18:5-6). And you’re telling me that he would suddenly subvert that pattern, specifically to exclude a man he just named “blessed”?

So no, from a linguistic perspective, the word-choice argument against the Papacy doesn’t hold water.

Let’s look at a few other support beams in my favor. Throughout this passage, Jesus (and, more specifically, Matthew) is using the terms μέν and δέ. These are the usual terms for differentiating one thing from another in a list, or distinguishing multiple things when they are parallel. It’s also great for saying, “This thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing, and then this other thing.” Those words are very versatile. That’s where most instances of “on the one hand…on the other hand” come from in Scripture translations (as you see in mine above). So when Jesus is saying, “Simon, thou are the rock, [and]…” is he using δέ, to signify a change? Nope–he’s using καί, signifying a continuation. There is no reversal. There is no change. Linguistically, Jesus is linking Peter to the stone, not separating them.

Speaking of links and parallels, what’s the deal with this sentence, anyway? “And I, on the other hand, say”? What’s going on there? Well, the structure of the sentence is nearly identical to the structure of Peter’s response to Christ in verse 16. He says, “Thou are the Christ, the son of God, the living [God].” Christ turns around and says, “And I, on the other hand, say that–” note the identical words here, “–thou are [the] stone, and on this stone, I will build my assembly, and [the] gates of Hades will not overpower it.”

Note my dubious use of the definite article there. The issue is this: ancient Greek has no indefinite article. It has some words that can approximate it, when something’s indefinite status needs to be called out very explicitly. But otherwise, if you want something indefinite, you just leave off the definite article. Oh, unless it’s a name. Then you can include the article or not, but you’re only talking about that one guy (or God, or any proper noun). Or when it’s the Law. It’s okay to leave off the article then and not mean any old law, but the Law. And a few other, itty-bitty, irrelevant, don’t-even-worry-about-them exceptions. So whether Peter is “a rock” or “the rock” depends pretty heavily on whether Jesus really is giving him the name Peter in this moment. If he is, all bets are off; if he’s making a simple statement about reality, he could just mean “a rock”… but not necessarily. I think “the” rock is appropriate, because I think this is the moment of the naming of Peter.

But whether he says, “Thou are a rock,” or, “Thou are the rock,” the rest of the sentence follows along all the same, marking him as the foundation of the Church.

Frankly, Matthew 16 is firmly on the side of the papists. Even before you throw in the obvious parallel with Isaiah 22.

But there are still three major obstacles between saying, “Okay, sure, maybe Peter was the foundation,” and the modern understanding of the authority of the Papacy.

  1. When is the primacy of Peter ever shown in the Scriptures? I only remember him denying Christ and getting yelled at by Paul.
  2. What qualifies the primacy of Peter to transfer from him to anyone else on down the chain?
  3. I’m betting there’s no way you can explain away that doctrine of infallibility.

I’ll tackle the questions of primacy and heredity now; I’m putting infallibility off until next time.

The primacy of the apostles, and Peter in particular, is exhibited in Acts 15. Luke first introduces us to the problem at hand: the Judaizers, who insist on circumcision even for the Gentiles, have great dissension with Paul and Barnabas. (We see Paul write against forcing circumcision on the Gentiles in Romans 2-4; I Corinthians 7; Galatians 5-6; Ephesians 2; Philippians 3; and Titus 1.) The two groups determine that they need a superior authority to their own reason: the authority of the apostles is sought out in Jerusalem.

When they arrive, the apostles and elders (literally the “presbyters,” often translated “bishops”) convene and debate the matter. This is the first Ecumenical Council, under the auspices of St. Peter himself. Eventually, Peter (!) stands and delivers the final say on the matter. The other positions do not hold water. No one pipes up to continue the fight. Peter’s word on circumcision (and salvation) is taken as-is. The only follow-up conversation is what should be demanded of Gentile converts: in short, don’t worship pagan gods. The apostles (!) approve the message, compose the letter, and send it. Here endeth the first Ecumenical Council, under the purview and authority of the Papacy.

And if that is not enough, recall that it is Peter alone who is charged with tending the sheep in John 21. His is the ultimate duty among all the apostles.

There is also the question of passing this authority on to Peter’s successors. There are a few points to consider here.

First, go back to Matthew. Jesus tells Peter that this rock, this assembly, will last forever. The gates of Hades, the very hands of death, cannot prevail against the Church. Christ, the Good Shepherd, wants Peter to tend his sheep until he returns; he has not yet returned, has he? How could the Church stand against the gates of hell, and how could the sheep be tended by loving shepherds, if the apostolic authority given to Peter (and to all the apostles) does not succeed into the next generation?

Some will argue that only the Twelve Apostles have the authority to ordain their immediate successors and fill them with the Holy Spirit–that those successors do not acquire this ability. Acts 9 flies directly in the face of this: though Christ himself has chosen Saul, the man cannot become an apostle until Ananias (not one of the Twelve, obviously) ordains him and fills him with the Holy Spirit. 2 Timothy 2 shows us Paul (a second-generation apostle) exhorting Timothy (third-generation) to pass along the faith (fourth-generation). All this works together to reinforce the continuation of apostolic authority within the Church.

This post grows quite long, and as I said, I will tackle the doctrine of infallibility in my next post. Let it suffice for now that the doctrine is not so unrestrained as you probably believe.

Back to the passage
1 There is a great play on words here using ἄνθρωποι and ἀνθρώπου that is difficult to render in English. The word can mean “man,” and in the singular, it often means “man” collectively (as in “Son of Man”), but in the plural (and sometimes in the singular), it means individuals, and specifically human individuals. It isn’t directly associated with the male sex any more than “mankind” is.

2 As with my translation posts (and as you’ll find in the King James), I’m using “you” for second person plural and “thou/thee” for second person singular throughout. This seems more dignified than using “you” for second person singular and “y’all” for second person plural.

3 From a purely textual perspective, it’s possible this could be a first-person jussive, i.e., “Let me build!” The future (as rendered above) is more likely, though.

4 The antecedent of this pronoun is unclear. It could be assembly (ἐκκλησίαν) or stone (πέτρᾳ). As often happens in Greek, it’s probably both, but if only one, then the closer (“assembly”) is more likely.

Swimming the Tiber 3: Whence Cometh Scripture, Thither Go I

Where does Scripture actually come from? The Holy Spirit, of course. But by what means? Did the Spirit grasp a pen and write it down? Did Christ? Did the Father? Of course not. No one of reason adheres to such claims. (I include certain heretics when I say “no one of reason.”)

So by what human means do the Scriptures come down to us? For when I absolve God of their physical origin, I leave only two options: lesser spirits and human beings. God forbid I attribute Holy Writ to demonic possession; loyal angels do not possess the bodies of men; and spirits by definition have no physical form. That leaves only human action as the physical source of Scripture. But which human actions?

I shall not concern myself with the lengthy debates of the authorship of individual books. Suffice it to say that I accept (as I always have) the traditional attributions of the Books of Holy Scripture, and I will continue to adhere to Church teaching in this matter, should the Church (in her wisdom) alter the specifics of those attributions (as it has with the author of Hebrews, for example). The most relevant question, after all, is not the author of individual passages of Scripture; such disputation does not harm the whole body of work, as its detractors suggest, but helps us better to understand the context. Instead, the relevant question is the compilation of Scripture. If we can trust the compilation of Scripture, then we can trust Scripture, disregarding whether Paul wrote Hebrews, whether it was indeed a letter by design (or a sermon made into a letter), and other minutiae (including therein, for example, the exact date of the composition of Isaiah 39 versus Isaiah 40, or Isaiah 55 versus Isaiah 56).

How, then, has Scripture been compiled? The official compilation for Catholics is most frequently identified as the Synod of Hippo in AD 393. Protestants identify this as canonizing their New Testament, but trace their Old Testament to the Judaic Council of Jamnia in the late 1st century AD (nevermind that this council may or may not have occurred, and nevermind that any post-Christ Jewish canon would necessarily oppose doctrines of those upstart anti-Jewish Christians). To reinforce their removal of the so-called Apocrypha, Protestants insist upon the principle of universal acceptance, pointing to the Jewish canon as authoritative for the Old Testament.

Again, nevermind that Jewish authorities, by the second century, would have opposed any books which reinforced Christian doctrine over Jewish doctrine.

Other arguments exist. For example, “We should only accept those Old Testament books which we have in their original Hebrew.” Well, this is quite the misnomer. In the first place, we don’t have any texts in their entirety in the original Hebrew. The closest we have is the Masoretic text, which has no significant extant copies older than the Aleppo Codex from AD 930, though a few smaller pieces remain from earlier. This is based on Jewish oral tradition, and generally follows older Hebrew texts, but has notable differences from several of the Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts. This makes it unreliable as an ultimate source of “original” Hebrew, though it may well be close enough. But the real problem is that demanding Hebrew originals for, say, the “Apocrypha,” is impossible–most scholars agree that the Maccabees, among others, were originally composed in Greek. So any Hebrew versions would be hardly original. For an example a little closer to home, consider that in the Book of Daniel, the original language was nearly half Aramaic (Daniel 2:4-7:28), with the rest being Hebrew. Should we dismiss those chapters as non-canonical as well?

Then there is the appeal to authority. “Jerome repudiated the Apocrypha!” it is claimed. (I think there is a certain irony in Protestants appealing to St. Jerome, but I will return to that in a later post.) Jerome’s preference not to include a translation of the Deuterocanon in his Vulgate depended on a lack of original Hebrew texts; as we have already pointed out, and as it was made clear to Jerome, that isn’t entirely relevant. Jerome went on to translate the Deuterocanon anyway, and included it in the Vulgate. He did not do so under protest, but rather willingly. Is the short-term disputation of Jerome more powerful than his lifelong acceptance of Church teaching? Certainly not, lest St. Augustine’s tryst with Manichaeism eliminate his later baptism, ordination, and saintly life.

The other saints, appealed to in a similar manner, likewise accepted–or even promulgated–the canon put forth at the Synod of Hippo, then ratified at the Councils of Carthage and by the papacy in the decades to follow. Those Church fathers whose opinions are so highly valued–St. Augustine by the Calvinists, St. Athanasius by all who acknowledge the divinity of Christ, and so on–agreed not with the Protestant canon, but with the one decided by the Church. The one decided altogether, at once, Old Testament and New. I have heard Protestants say that the Holy Spirit worked through the Church, despite her faults, to establish the New Testament canon at these points. Does the Holy Spirit often exert influence in one sentence, then fail to do so in the next? Does the Holy Spirit direct a single document put forward by an ecumenical council to be both accurate (of the New Testament) and heretically inaccurate (of the Old)? On the contrary, as is appropriate, when a document is heretical, all of its statements are thrown into doubt, and none are kept sure unless confirmed by some other method.

But there was never a method that confirmed the New Testament canon without confirming at least some of the Deuterocanon within the Old. Is the Holy Spirit so weak that he should fail to establish the canon in even one place throughout the history of the Church? Is the Church so weak that the gates of hell should overtake her with a false canon of Scripture? Certainly not.

The typical response is to discount the historical canon altogether. The canon is reached by careful examination under a set of principles–apostolic authority and consistent content, for example. The Protestant canon, then, is never closed; but it is simultaneously never really questioned. I have heard of no Protestants adding the Shepherd of Hermas, once treated as canonical by several Church Fathers (but rejected by the Church under the authority of the Holy Spirit). The Didache, likewise, has never been added. There is no outcry for other documents of certain apostolic authority, such as the two letters of St. Paul to the Corinthians which are no longer extant; unlike the desperate search for the remains of Noah’s ark, there has been no concerted Protestant effort to find what may well be valuable canonical documents.

How many times have you genuinely questioned the canon of the New Testament, only to arrive at exactly the same list as the Church? Better yet, how often have you arrived at a different list? No, on the contrary, Protestants–excluding heretics who embrace Gnostic gospels–flatly and implicitly accept the canon of the New Testament put forth by the Church… while still rejecting her authority on the Old Testament.

I thought and acted in this way for years.

And you may do so even now.

So I ask you: if not from the Holy Spirit through the Church, whence cometh Scripture?

Swimming the Tiber 2: The Rules of Faith

It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of the mob. […] Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.

– G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, “The Ethics of Elfland”

I have, in my finite wisdom, decided to begin with one of the most challenging topics for any Protestant trying to understand the Catholic perspective. Well, I say “any Protestant”; what I really mean is anyone from the evangelical denominations. The challenge is this: to set aside the sola in sola Scriptura and recognize the authority of sacred Tradition and sacred Church.

I have chosen to start here because acknowledging Tradition (and, by extension, the Church) is crucial to grasping the entire Catholic faith. Catholicism hinges on understanding that Tradition and the Church are just as much rules of our faith as Scripture. But before I delve into that reasoning, let me start where I, personally, started: not just sola Scriptura, but something like solissima Scriptura.

The sola Scriptura of the Reformers placed Scripture first, as the primary rule of faith, but allowed for the introduction of ideas and understandings from Tradition and the Church, provided they did not conflict with Scripture. I began in a place more like John Wesley’s position. He wrote, in the first section of a tract titled Popery Calmly Considered (calmly indeed!), “In all cases, the church is to be judged by Scripture, not the Scripture by the church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way therefore to understand it is, carefully to compare scripture with scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.”

At first glance, this seems delightfully succinct and self-enclosed. What need is there of Tradition or the Church? We have Scripture. Scripture will interpret Scripture, and all things will be made clear. I held to this view for more than twenty years, perfectly happy in my belief that “Scripture alone” could answer any question of faith. But one thing perturbed me, and ultimately led to the fracturing–and crumbling–of my adherence to this doctrine: if Scripture alone can answer all questions of faith, why didn’t all Protestants agree on questions of doctrine?

Protestant responses to this vary. First, some will say, Protestants all agree on soteriological doctrines: man is saved sola gratia per solam fidem in solo Christo (that is, man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone). Right? Well, what about Unitarians (those who deny the Trinity)? Or universalists (those who say that everyone is saved)? They’re Protestants, too. They have the same Bible as everyone else (well, except Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but I’ll get to that later). Why are they so wrong?

Well, I would have said back in the day, they just are. The Holy Spirit isn’t showing them the true interpretation, or they’re allowing their own biases to interfere with the Spirit’s influence. And that was fine, as I said, for a while. But why would the Holy Spirit exclude anyone who earnestly pursues their faith? Or fail to convict someone who idolizes their own ideas? And beyond that, other doctrines matter, too. In fact, sola Scriptura suggests that all Christian doctrines work together to support our understanding of God, and they all stem from Scripture. And the mere existence of thousands of Christian denominations (not all of them Protestant, as one randomly selected website is careful to point out) suggests disunity of understanding.

And of all the sorrows of Church history, disunity is the greatest. On the night Our Savior was betrayed, he repeated in prayer four times his desire for the unity of the Church (John 17:11, 21-23). And I have never been satisfied by the claim, “But we are one! We all believe in Jesus. Isn’t that enough?” No, said I–it really isn’t. Even if that were enough for salvation (James 2:19 tells us it isn’t), it is a weak marker of unity. I agree with most Jewish faithful that Abraham and Moses existed and were who they claimed; does that make me Jewish? I agree with most atheists that Jupiter and Apollo and Juno are not gods; does that make me an atheist? If not, then why does my mere admission that Christ existed and spoke honestly make me a member of the very Body of Christ, the Church herself, in communion with all the saints and the faithful?

But the deepest problem of using Scripture as the ultimate authority is that it simply isn’t possible. Scripture has nuance, culture, and a deeply ingrained mythos isolated to a culture we do not share, and indeed is spread across hundreds, even thousands, of years of national history. Even if you take every passage literally, you will inevitably encounter passages that must be reconciled–was there one angel at the tomb or two? Were there five thousand men being fed, or only four? Am I still not allowed to get tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), or is that a part of the Law, like circumcision and uncleanness, that “doesn’t really apply anymore”? Is baptism necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), or is it, too, like circumcision, an imposition of weak men? Is Peter the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16), or must it not be so on account of Luke 22 and I Corinthians 3:11? Like the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), how can I understand unless someone shows me what it means? And when I go to that person of authority, I must choose who my authority is. It could be my local pastor, or the theology professor at the nearest seminary, or my friend who happens to read Greek and Hebrew, or my parent, or my spouse. But if I don’t like what that person says, I will go to another. And another. Eventually, I may take it upon myself to interpret the passage. Of course, I will pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance; but what assurance do I have that I am not using my bias to interfere with the Spirit’s influence? Or that I am aided by the Spirit at all?

But if, rather, I go to the Church, and the sacred Tradition that has been handed down within the Church from the apostles, who received it from Christ himself, have I not gone as close to the source of all truth as I can in this physical realm? And while, yes, it is possible for God to speak directly into the ear or the mind, it is likewise possible for the devil; and not everyone has the gift of prophecy, and those that are so blessed do not always have the gift of discerning spirits. Reasoned self-doubt is appropriate here; we’re talking about not just my soul, but your soul–all souls. Understanding the Word of God is essential not only to my temporal well-being, but to the eternal well-being of myself, my family, and all those whom I might evangelize. This is too much responsibility to lay on the sinful and finite judgment of one man, who lacks even the auspices of God’s ordination. I am no one; who am I, then, to be the final arbiter of Scripture in my life and the lives of those around me?

These, then, were my thoughts as I approached at last the universal Church, bedecked in glory. She has those auspices. She was ordained by Christ himself, and he promised that the gates of hell would never overtake her. Here, certainly, I could find assurance in my faith.

It was not that simple, of course. I had objections. I said, “II Timothy 3:16-17 tells us that the Scriptures are of utmost importance.” St. Francis (see the introductory post of this series for a link to the relevant work) replied, “The Scriptures are indeed most useful, and it is no little favor which God has done us to preserve them for us through so many persecutions, but the utility of Scripture does not make holy traditions useless, any more than the use of one eye, of one leg, of one ear, of one hand, makes the other useless” (translated by Fr. Mackey, OSB, 103).

He goes on to remind me of John 20:30-31 and Romans 10:14 (especially, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book,” and, “How are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”). When I refute with Galatians 1:8, which warns against false proclamations, St. Francis replies that Paul expressly declares that the Gospel has been preached, not merely written; so the gospel is both what was taught and what was written, and anything taught contrary to the traditions of the apostles, that which was taught but not written, should be accursed! And the good saint went on to remind me of II Thessalonians 2:14, II John 12; III John 13-14; II Timothy 1:13-14; 2:2; and more still.

By the standard of Scripture itself, I cannot, in good conscience and sound mind, reject the Tradition of the apostles.

What, then, of the third rule of faith for Catholics: the Church? It goes back to my first point, which I took so long to make: we have need of a judge when there is disagreement over the interpretation of Scripture. On any subject, any theological point, when we disagree, we say, “Let us look to Scripture!” But St. Francis reminds us of Matthew 5:13 and asks, “If the Scripture be the subject of our disagreement, who shall decide?” (ibid, 111)

Catholics, then, have this authority in the Church. From the Church extend all other rules of the faith–the ecumenical Councils (some of which some Protestants accept, and others not), the early Church fathers (some of which are accepted and others are not, though, I think, very few are accepted in toto), the papacy (which all Protestants reject, hence the name), the miracles and the saints, and the harmony of faith and reason. (I will touch on most of these topics, including the Church herself, in later posts.)

Thus can Catholics be assured of a right understanding of Scripture and holy Tradition, in sum, the Gospel of Christ–not when they, like Protestants, make their own judgments and apply their own opinions, but when they turn to the “awful authority of the mob,” the great unity of the Church and her doctrine, her understanding, handed down from the apostles, who themselves received it from Jesus Christ in the flesh.

These are the other great rules of the faith, and though I have paid them but little explanation, I hope I have summed up my own conversion. Next time, on Swimming the Tiber, I hope to address the specific relationship between Scripture and Tradition, especially the establishment of the canon of Scripture.